The Halftime Show: Mid-majors to watch this season
Sports Illustrated’s college hoops team is rolling out its midseason package, “The Halftime Show,” this week. Over the next few days, we’ll have several features looking back at the first semester of hoops — and looking forward to the second. Yesterday we looked at the winners and losers from non-conference play. Today we're breaking down five teams from non-power conferences that you should make sure to keep an eye on this season. Teams from the following leagues were not considered: A-10, AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, SEC, Pac-12, West Coast.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tommy Amaker’s team has gone 13-2 and established itself as one of the nation’s top mid-majors this year. It received 46 votes in the preseason AP poll; returned almost every major contributor from last season’s team that upset 3-seed New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA Tournament; and welcomed back two of its best players – guard Brandyn Curry and forward Kyle Casey – after they missed the entire 2012-13 season because of an academic cheating scandal.
The Crimson are ranked No. 27 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings and boast a top-45 efficiency offense and defense. Harvard has missed two opportunities for signature wins, falling at No. 25 Colorado on Nov. 24 and losing to UConn Wednesday night. The losses leave the Crimson needing to win the Ivy League to earn at NCAA Tournament bid (the Ivy does not stage a conference tournament).
Manhattan barely missed the NCAA Tournament last March, when it lost to Iona by three in the Metro Athletic Conference Tournament final. Unlike last season, when the Jaspers finished just 9-9 in conference play (and 14-18 overall) and got hot during the league tournament, Steve Masiello’s team has established itself as the early favorite to win the MAAC. Senior guard George Beamon (21. 6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), who missed all but four games last season with an ankle injury, is one of the most underrated mid-major players in the country, and forward Rhamel Brown is a tremendous defender and rim-protector (his 18.1 block rate ranks No. 2 in the country).
The Jaspers are 7-0 in true road games, won at La Salle and South Carolina in November and December, respectively, and opened conference play 4-0. While it will likely drop a few games over the next couple of months – road trips to Iona, Quinnipiac and Canisius will be tough – Manhattan should emerge from MAAC play as the top seed for the league’s conference tournament, with a good chance to earn its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2004.
North Dakota State
One of the most shocking results so far this season is Notre Dame’s home loss to North Dakota State on December 11. It’s a bad loss for the Irish, to be sure -- especially because Notre Dame still had its best player, senior guard Jerian Grant, available when it happened -- but it would be a mistake to dismiss the quality of the opponent their opponent. Picked to finish first in the Summit League’s preseason poll, the Bison are off to an 11-4 start, having suffered three of their four losses to good teams: Saint Mary’s, Southern Miss and No. 3 Ohio State.
Preseason Summit League Player of the Year Taylor Braun is having his best season yet, averaging 18.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists. He’s drawing an average of 8.0 fouls per 40 minutes (13th in the country) and producing 1.23 points per possession on 28.8 percent usage. Braun is complemented down low by senior forward Marshall Bjorklund, who sports the highest field goal percentage (68.1) in the country among players averaging at least six field goal attempts per game. The Bison, who rank No. 18 in the country in offensive efficiency and No. 3 in two-point field goal percentage, are the odds-on favorite to win the Summit league.
Most observers waited to pass judgment on Toledo until after its Dec. 30 game at Kansas. The Rockets didn’t win at Allen Fieldhouse, but they lost by only 10 points. Toledo has garnered at least one vote in the AP poll the past six weeks – topping out at 32 on last week’s poll – and remains the frontrunner to win the Mid American Conference West Division despite falling at Western Michigan on Wednesday. In the conference race simulations published last week on his website, Pomeroy gave Toledo, who was ineligible for postseason play in 2013 due to low APR scores, a 50.87 percent chance of earning the one-seed for the MAC Tournament.
Toledo’s turnaround under coach Tod Kowalczyk has been remarkable. It went from one conference win in 2010-11 to 7 in 2011-12 to 10 in 2012-13 and, with an offense ranked No. 8 in the country in points per possession, looks poised to exceed that total this season. The Rockets returned four starters from 2012-13, including preseason All-MAC West guards Rian Pearson and Julius Brown and 2013 ALL-MAC freshman Nathan Boothe. Tough games loom at East Division favorite Akron and Ohio, but the Rockets should be able to beat out their top league competitors.
No. 6 Wichita State
Can the Shockers go undefeated in the regular season? It seems unlikely. As of Thursday, Kenpom.com projects they will go 16-2 in Missouri Valley play and have a 13.4 percent chance to make it to "Arch Madness" (the MVC tournament) without getting clipped. The fact this question is even being raised in the first place is a testament to Wichita State’s body of work and its perceived potential to handle every remaining opponent on its schedule. A couple of of Wichita State’s non-conference wins (BYU, Alabama) look less impressive than at game time, but if the Shockers are able to make it through conference play with only a couple of losses – at Missouri State (January 11), at Indiana State (February 5) and at Northern Iowa (February 8) are possibilities – it should be able to earn a top-three NCAA Tournament seed. SI’s latest bracket watch pegs the Shockers as a 3-seed.
This team is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament spotlight. It gave eventual National Champion Louisville all it could handle in last year’s Final Four,and has the talent and depth to make a return trip to the national semifinals. Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet and Tekele Cotton comprise one of the best backcourts in the country, while forward Cleanthony Early (16.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is an explosive and versatile scorer. The Shockers rank No. 12 in Kenpom.com’s team rankings, No. 14 offensive efficiency and No. 21 in defensive efficiency. Gregg Marshall’s team seems better-equipped for a Final Four run this season than it was in 2013. Other mid-major teams to watch: Southern Miss, Green Bay, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, UC Santa Barbara, Stephen F. Austin, Princeton, Ohio